Marudi ~ Upper Baram, Sarawak Borneo

The Baram District

hose fort gardens

The great Baram River is the 2nd longest river in Sarawak and is the lifeline for numerous tribes living in the interior. The Orang Ulu (or Interior People) is a generic name that includes various tribes such as the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Punan or Penan, Berawan, Lun Bawang, Saban amongst other smaller tribes. The tribes' infamy was known far and wide amongst other rather genteel tribes. The Orang Ulu were fearless warriors, priding themselves in bringing home the heads of enemies especially warriors as trophies after bloody battles. The tribes were indeed forces to be reckoned with. They fought over territories that spanned thousands of hectares. The villages each had scouts scouring and protecting their territories. If found that an enemy had trespassed into their area to hunt and fish in their rivers, a war would break out and the victorious tribe would take such situations to expand territory, take in prisoners as slaves and collect trophy heads.

Fort Museum

The Baram district was under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Bruni (Brunei) until 1882. The Sultan was by then finding much difficulty in controlling the continual feud and blood letting of these ferocious tribes in the Baram area. The battles and the expansion of tribal lands by the late 1800’s had reached to a distance which was uncomfortably close to his capital and was becoming a threat to his personal security. The Sultan’s authority had never before been exercised in this territory spanning an area of some 10,000sq miles . Their fear of the wrath of the Kayan tribe, the Malays never ventured into the interiors of Baram. Hence, when Rajah Brooke pushed his authority deeper into the upper reaches of Baram, The Sultan was happy to relinquish his hold of the area for a lump sum of 6,000dollars per annum of which the Foreign Office in England had agreed to, believing it to be a fair price for the handover.

Marudi and The Baram Regatta

logs in barges floating down the baram river

Charles Brooke fretted over such barbaric methods conducted by his subjects, deciding to end these blood feuds and headhunting habits once and for all. He got all the tribes together in a contest, initiating cock fight activities amongst the tribes but that didn’t quite go down well with the losing parties and another brawl broke out. Back to the drawing board, Resident Charles Hose decided to host a regatta instead at Marudi.

marudi: not quite historical

Marudi (or Claude town as it was known then, named after the previous resident of Baram, Claude Champion de Crespigny), was the central trading town for the Baram district. Charles Hose stationed his sentries atop a knoll that overlooked the river. He believed that the Baram Regatta would be a solution to their predicament. And having hosted the first regatta, called the Sarawak Regatta in Kuching in January 1871, Rajah Brooke mooted the idea and decided to promote it to the tribes living in the interior. Hose realised that with the exception of the Penans, all other tribes in Borneo utilise rivers extensively to traverse and to create boundaries as they expand their lands. The idea was taken on eagerly and soon felling of large forest trees was seen and war boats were carved from a single tree trunk, normally from the engkabang tree that could seat 30 warriors. The tree trunk was normally hollowed out with the use of fire and adze. Its masthead was shaped into a head of the majestic hornbill, given that the hornbill is highly revered in the Orang Ulu culture, regarded as a vessel for the spirits to communicate with the people.

An excerpt from The Pagan Tribes of Borneo by Charles Hose and William McDougall gives a point by point narration of this first race:

‘At daybreak the racing-boats set off for the startingpost four miles up river. The Resident had given strict orders that no spears or other weapons were to be carried in the racing-boats, and as they started up river we inspected the boats in turn, and in one or two cases relieved them of a full complement of spears; and then we followed them to the post in the steam-launch. There was a score of entries, and since each boat carried from sixty to seventy men sitting two abreast, more than a thousand men were taking part in the race. The getting the boats into line across the broad river was a noisy and exciting piece of work. We carried on the launch a large party of elderly chiefs, most. of whom were obviously suffering from "the needle," and during the working of the boats into line they hurled commands at them in language that was terrific in both quality and volume. At last something like a line was assumed, and on the sound of the gun the twenty boats leaped through the water, almost lost to sight in a cloud of spray as every one of those twelve hundred men struck the water for all he was worth. There was no saving of themselves; the rate of striking was about ninety to the minute, and tended constantly to increase. Very soon two boats drew out in front, and the rest of them, drawing together as they neared the first bend, followed hotly after like a pack of hounds. This order was kept all over the course. During the first burst our fast launch could not keep up with the boats, but we drew up in time to see the finish. It was a grand neck-and-neck race all through between the two leading boats, and all of them rowed it out to the end. The winners were a crew of the peaceful down-river folk, who have learnt the art of boat-making from the Malays of the coast; and they owed their victory to their superior skill in fashioning their boat, rather than to superior strength. When they passed the post we had an anxious moment -- How would the losers take their beating? Would the winners play the fool, openly exulting and swaggering? If so, they would probably get their heads broken, or perhaps lose them. But they behaved with modesty and discretion, and we diverted attention from them by swinging the steamer round and driving her through the main mass of the boats. Allowing as accurately as possible for the rate of the current as compared with the rate of the tide at Putney, we reckoned the pace of the winning boat to be a little better than that of the 'Varsity eights in racing over the full course.’

Baram Regatta

market in town

The Baram Regatta is still held every 3 years, the recent one from 14th till 17th August 2008. The reigning champions of the regatta are from Mulu, mainly of the Berawan tribe. Boat races are categorised by boat length, distance, gender or mixed gender groups. The Mulu contenders supposedly have the upper hand, men and women alike, as they get to practice every evening after work. The sape festival held during these regatta weekends is also fast becoming popular which is gigantic step in bringing back the splendours of traditional music. What’s great about the regatta is that it brings together villagers from all around the Baram area and even from Brunei. Different tribes converge and mingle, dressed in their traditional wear and decked up in jewellery which normally is stored away in old tins, waiting for special occasions such as this to parade in. In the early years of the regatta, contestants from various tribes from deeper parts of the jungle would embark on a journey that may take up to a week of travelling. Along the way, they would find shelter with friendly tribes or build makeshift shelters by the river or even sleep on the boat instead. But always, the main item that eggs them on would be the jars of Borak or Burak (fermented rice wine) that they bring along with them for the celebrations. But of course, by the time they get to Marudi, much of the stash had already been consumed..

walking to hose fort

It’s surprising that even though we were so far into the interior, the town itself is bustling with cars and trucks. Taxis were abundant! Then we realised that Marudi is also the main education hub for the Baram Area. Children from villages along the river are sent to the boarding schools in their later schooling years and they only get to return home only during long weekends and holidays. However, considering the poverty level in Baram, it’s strange to see the fleet of taxis there .The roads leading out of Marudi is contestable as to whether they are roads or just open paths which doubles up as river runoffs during the monsoon season.

Having dug up more on the history of Marudi, it seems when the outpost at Marudi was set up in the early years of ruling in the territory, the Resident also invited the Chinese traders. The traders were to open a bazaar at Marudi in order to trade with the tribes. In order to trade with the Chinese, the villagers would first have to accept the Rajah's government. Prior to this, tribes living in the interiors had little or no connection with outside traders, especially the Chinese and Malays who could provide them with their prized cloths and lucifer matches, hardware, steel bars, priceless Chinese jars, and other much-coveted goods in return for jungle goods. With much persuasion and continual visits to their remote sites in the jungles by the Residents, the tribes eventually accepted Rajah’s sovereignty and peace was restored over the territory. Head hunting was eliminated.

It is no wonder then that Marudi has a large Chinese population. Chinese towkays manning their sundry shops and textile retails line the rows of shops along the main street. The main hotels in the are owned by Chinese towkays as well. The Grand Hotel on Jalan Cinema and Mount Mulu Hotel off the main street are a few of the better ones. The motels are clean if not a tad too basic or clinical eg Baram Hotel.

The Hose Fort is an interesting visit. Open: Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m, admission is free. It houses a museum with a collection of cultural and historical artifacts that have been collected in and around Baram over the years. The fort itself was built on foundations laid in 1898 and was completed in 1901. The fortwas used as the admistrative centre housing District Office, Land and Survey Department, Information Department and Welfare Office. Then in 1994, it became a hold for KEMAS (Government Department in promoting progress in suburban and interior areas). Unfortunately, a fire broke out and razed the fort in 1994. Quite often, such vandalism is viewed with much suspicion. The fort was then rebuilt to its original specification with the help of the Baram people and reopened in 1997.

Another interesting place to visit is the market place in Marudi. The local tribes bring their produce to the market to sell and a variety of vegetable and plants can be bought here. The monstrous modernistic building that was constructed in replacement of the open air styled market does not quite seem to fit into the simple life of the people there though. Another government approved project not befitting with the lifestyle of the local communities, another council person with pockets breaming. For those who would like to take home some fish, vendors sell their river catches along the 5 foot pathway close to the jetty. Not the sizes of the ones caught before the intensive logging started here over 20years ago, but at least there are a small enough genepool that may sustain the communities here for several more years.. There’s the sebarau( a local carp specie) and the local catfish available.

getting there


By Air

Maswings fly from Miri to Marudi daily. A mere 20min flight time as compared with 4hrs by road or 3hrs by boat upriver. This may be a good choice for those with limited time. For more log onto:

By Boat

From Kuala Baram jetty in Miri, there are speedboats leaving daily with the first boat scheduled at 7.20am and there could be as many as 4 trips per day, depending on demand and weather permitting.

For more information on the boat schedule, call Tinjar Express at +6 019 8755831 . This express provide transport from Marudi to Kuala Baram, Long Lama, Totuh and Tinjar

By Road

You can hire cars or rather, 4WD trucks in Miri. This is a little tougher to put together and you will be a little sore by the end of the trip. The road is bumpy and the 4WD will be bouncing along an old logging road (takes about 3 1/2hrs - 4hrs). For land travel, you need to know people who can connect you to people who can provide private transfers. Ask around at the bus terminal by the tourism information centre in Miri. From Marudi back to Miri, there are contact numbers of private transfers posted on boards at sundry shops in Marudi's main street.

best time to go

Monsoon season hits Sarawak from October till February. The drier months will be from March till August. The best time to go would definitely be during the Baram Regatta which happens every 3years. The other time would be during the new year festival or the Gawai Festival

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